How One L.A. Animation Studio is Experimenting With Virtual Reality Cartoons

Jhonen Vasquez Google Tilt Brush drawing
Drawing by Jhonen Vasquez. | Image: Courtesy of Titmouse.

Back in the 1990s, when Chris Prynoski started using Photoshop for work, he dreamt of selection tools. Now, the president and owner of animation studio Titmouse is dreaming of virtual reality or, more specifically, the interface used to make VR cartoons. 

For years, Titmouse has had a reputation for making cutting-edge animated series. Their work has frequently appeared on Adult Swim, in the form of shows like "Metalocalypse," "Superjail!," "The Venture Bros." and "China, IL." But, for as strange as Titmouse's work can be, it's still pretty normal in the sense that you can see their work on television or computer screens. Now, however, Prynoski is leading the studio into the realm of virtual reality. Recently, the studio collaborated with Google, using their VR painting software Tilt Brush to create a series of experimental super-shorts. Called the "Two Weeks of Titmouse," the series featured work from Prynoski and artist friends like Ben Jones, Jim Mahfood, Jhonen Vasquez, Peter Chung and Pendleton Ward. 

Ward, creator of the hit cartoon series "Adventure Time," was the person who introduced Prynoski to the world of virtual reality a few years ago, when Oculus Rift was catching some buzz. The Titmouse leader was instantly intrigued. He dropped word to his agent that he was interested in getting the company in on some VR work and, through that, was able to demo another new piece of VR gear called the HTC Vive. "The coolest thing in that demo, in my opinion, was Tilt Brush," Prynoski recalls. 

Antonio Canobbio Google Tilt Brush drawing
Drawing by Antonio Canobbio. | Image: Courtesy of Titmouse.

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He made contact with the Tilt Brush folks and the companies started collaborating. Then, after Tilt Brush was purchased by Google, they brought in Titmouse to make art for the software. Through the project, Titmouse has gone to South by Southwest in Austin, Google's San Francisco headquarters and Annecy in France. Now, they're getting ready to expand their work in VR. 

As virtual reality is slowly making its way into the mainstream, artists and technicians are figuring out how to adapt everything from video games to educational films to fit a format where the viewer enters the content. In many instances, the goal is to give viewers a very real experience. That's not what Titmouse wants to do. 

"Our focus on VR is very much about not being real," says Prynoski. "It's the second world, virtual reality, and we don't want to do anything that's like reality."

He continues, "We want to figure out weirdo cartoon stuff and be ourselves."

"Two Weeks of Titmouse" was part of that. The artists involved did more than make content for virtual reality; they made art inside the VR sphere. When users pull a headset over the eyes, the tangible world disappears from sight. The artists are now inside a blank space where they can create visuals with controllers that are held in each hand. They can wave an arm to create neon trailers or point-and-shoot stars into a virtual night sky. 

Prynoski says that while people compare art-making in virtual reality to sculpture, it's not the same thing. "You still have to obey the laws of physics," he says of sculpture. "You can't just make something that floats in the middle of the air." In virtual reality, though, you can not only make an object that hangs in the air, you can step inside of it and continue working. 

"It's a curiosity," says Ben Jones, "but it's also the way to smash your brain apart and learn instantaneously."

Jones, creator of the animated series "Problem Solverz" and "Stone Quackers" whose fine art has been displayed locally at Ace Gallery and MOCA, has long merged technological innovations with his art. Born in 1977, he grew up with computers. "It was so much more than an influence," he says. "Just as much as some people embrace ink and the texture of bristle board, I embrace vector and pixel coordinates on a screen."

David Nicolas Google Tilt Brush drawing
Drawing by David Nicolas. | Image: Courtesy of Titmouse.

He worked at Titmouse over the course of a few sessions to produce his work for the project, learning the tools as he created. The revelations on how he could use the program didn't hit him until he was driving home. "It's such an intense, visceral thing that you would need time to digest what had happened," he explains. The finished work reminded him of pieces he created in the early days of the internet and consumer-based animation programs, art he still considers amongst the best he's done. "I look at that piece and it definitely isn't calculated It's just this really honest expression of excitement," he says. 

Where Jones' work is intimately connected to technology, artist Jim Mahfood still primarily works in a traditional fashion. He came to the Titmouse offices once to figure out how to use the program, and a second time to make two pieces for the project. 

"It's not like you're sitting at a table drawing with your eye three inches away from a piece of paper," Mahfood says. "Your whole body becomes part of the experience. It really reminded me a lot of tagging and graffiti, or using spray paint, where you put your whole arm and your whole body in it. You're not thinking, visualizing in terms of making little strokes with your fingers. You're visualizing using your whole arm and your whole body in creating these three dimensional images."

Jim Mahfood Google Tilt Brush drawing
Drawing by Jim Mahfood. | Image: Courtesy of Titmouse.

VR does more than change how artists create the images. It can change the approach to narrative as well, particularly for stories that involve comedy. 

"With comedy, you're used to controlling what people are looking at and timing," Prynoski explains. "You cut to a close up and the guy delivers a punchline and everybody laughs, but, if you have someone looking wherever they want, they might miss what's funny about something. Conversely, if you force them to look at something, then they don't have the control of virtual reality and it doesn't seem like virtual reality."

To get around that, Prynoski made a VR comic where readers can travel through panels. "They can do it at their own pace and it doesn't destroy the feeling of being in control of the situation," he says. 

Prynoski likens this period of virtual reality content to film's infancy, when even the simplest actions were ground-breaking. "Right now, we're at that stage where you can do pretty much do anything and it seems cool," he says. 

That can make VR exciting for artists. "It's hard to intellectualize when we're still figuring out the creative ramifications," Jones says. "I always like it when the artist has as much power as the smart person. I'm definitely an artist, so I feel lucky."

Dave Johnson Google Tilt Brush drawing
Drawing by Dave Johnson. | Image: Courtesy of Titmouse.

Top image by Chris Prynoski. | Courtesy of Titmouse.


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